Berlin Boyd: Draining the Swamp at City Hall

berlinboyd_lg2Ryan Poe’s Commercial Appeal article on the Boyd Scandal on September marked a watershed in Memphis politics.  This is Ryan’s well-deserved scoop, but I am pretty sure it could not have been written two years ago.

179b5-1ryvanppue7wbw2foij7wggDuring the 2015 election cycle, the Boyd article to the right appeared in the CA.  The piece, written by Kyle Veazey, who has since left the CA to work for the city, contains two factual errors, which, incidentally, have never been corrected by the CA.

An anonymous source circulated a packet of information at the time, showing that Boyd’s realtor license had expired more than a year before.    It went to most of the media, and to Anthony Anderson and Thurston Smith, Boyd opponents in the District 7 election.

Although posing as a realtor without a license contravenes Tennessee Real Estate Commission (TREC) rules, this story got no play whatsoever.   We know the source of this leak and have a copy of the packet that was sent.

The next attempt to out Boyd  came in the Facebook page, Memphis Raise Your Expectations.  (MRYE).  This October 2015 post garnered 427 comments and had a charmed life.   MRYE incubated Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens and has broken significant news stories.

After being dormant since the November 2015 election, this thread started up again, on November 2, 2016, and hundreds of new comments were added.   The new posts had a lot of new information.   The thread was closed in November 2016 and this new Boyd thread continued the discussion.  Warning:  The MRYE Boyd posts contain adult content).

Soon afterwards, on January 9th 2017, I published my first Berlin Boyd piece,  followed by an article on his TREC relations and another on his support from the Media, on January 17th and 30th

The information was not picked up by the media, but it did ignite a discussion on MRYE, in which the media got called out and somewhat forcefully reminded of the role of the fourth estate.

I can now reveal that the Boyd exposes were not all my own work.   They were the product of a group that was started in August, 2016.  Let’s call it the Boyd Study Group.   Because the crew contains confidential informants, I will continue to protect its anonymity.   I was the scribe so I by-lined the posts in MemphisTruth.org. This was in accordance with the site’s stated policy on protection of confidential sources.   I composed the first drafts of the pieces, based on group discussion, they went through a group editing process, and all salient information was fact checked by me and citations provided.

Activist study groups had sprung up during the Greensward disputes of 2016 and the technique has been widely adopted in activist circles.   This is one of a dozen such groups that I know about.

We could have done like Woodward and Bernstein did with Deep Throat, and had clandestine meetings in parking garages, but instead we chose to integrate our confidential sources into the group.   I can say that the Boyd Study Group has white, African American and Latino members, men and women, believers and skeptics.   We decided that these groups work best when small, a maximum of five members and ideally four.   We use encrypted media.   I have never met one member, met another only once and we have cell-based operational security.

MRYE had the scoop on the Boyd Papers.   In an unrelated event, I uncovered the A-list and broke the story in MemphisTruth.org and MRYE.    The media seized on this story and it ran in February and March, yielding several court cases, notably the ACLU case against the City and MPD.    Mayor Strickland and Director Rallings squirmed for the cameras.

The media, specifically the CA, had been challenged to perform its role as the Fourth Estate.   The A-list controversy, coming at time of cutbacks in the press, highlighted something important that both the media and the activist community held in high regard.  We could all get behind the First Amendment.   In the backwash of the Trump presidency, these things suddenly seemed important.  Activists worked with the media, and mutual respect was garnered.   The media had changed, even the august, pro status quo  CA, scalded by cutbacks in the press room, could no longer get by without contributions from citizens media.   The news and politics got interesting.   The accession of Mark Russell to the Executive Editorship of the CA seemed to bring a new era of journalistic openness at the CA.   He was heard to say that we had been giving his guy Ryan Poe a hard time, and that was OK with him.

The Boyd Scandal Erupts

Ted Evanoff of the CA posted this early news of Boyd’s $280,000 contract on September 11th.  Then, Ryan Poe published his first piece on Berlin Boyd’s failure to recuse himself from a conflict of interest in his contract with Beale St Merchants Association.   The stalwart Bill Dries of the Daily News pitched in, and MRYE buzzed with the news.  Even City Councilor Worth Morgan added his criticism.   Behind the Headlines discussed.

Berlin Boyd rebutted on Facebook.

The pivotal point in the discussion came with Bernal Smith’s Open Letter in the Tri State Defender.   This was a scathing rebuttal of Boyd’s excuses, which did not pass Smith’s “smell test”.   Notably, Smith quoted several MRYE comments in his letter.   Boyd even came on MRYE (I think for the first time) and engaged in a long discussion on the 15th.

Paul Morris, former interim manager at Beale St., posted twice on Facebook, on 09/14/2017 and 09/15/2017.  In the second post, he raised a red flag at the corruption potential of the Allen Wade legal opinion, which opened the door for all City Council members who wished not to declare conflicts of interest.

Ted Evanoff penned this piece in the CA on September 16th, a rare defense of Boyd.   The CA editorial on September 19th was a scathing criticism of Boyd, likening it to a Trump shenanigan.   The CA editorial team set the tone of the debate, and, hopefully forever, officially placed the CA on the side of transparency and accountability.   We view this as one of the main achievements of the Boyd Scandal.

Social Media was on fire.  Retired veteran reporter Les Smith contributed, MRYE was livid and a twitter feed, @BoydAndAss and hashtag #BerlinBoyd appeared, as well as a short-lived Facebook page misleadingly labeled Boyd-Associates.

The same day the CA editorialized, Boyd announced he would be “rescinding” his Beale St. Merchants Association contract.  We believe that Boyd had being discussing the issue with his handlers and had not wanted to give up the lucrative gig.  Media pressure made him do it.

Ryan Poe posted the news, while the meeting was still in progress.   This story went big in the media.   Otis Sanford on WREG Channel 3.  The Flyer posted, as did Bernal Smith in the TSD, neatly summing up.

Draining the Swamp

Berlin Boyd is not the only Council member who engages in questionable practices.   The use of public money for private gain is rampant.  This “Ethics Petition” from 2014 has details.

The Boyd study group is currently examining our methodology.   We have learned some lessons from Ryan Poe and our efforts with the Boyd scandal.  We have relied on confidential sources and the media following the money.   We have had some learning curve.   We have seen how one self-enrichment scheme works, and how it is narrowly defined as legitimate by Allen Wade, the City Council counsel.

We plan to make our next project more efficient, and rely less on chance to find patterns of corruption.  We’ll report back on what we find.

The Boyd Study Group continues its work, and continues to be secret to protect its embedded sources.  To use an analogy from government spying, we substituted human intelligence sources for a range of possible technical information gathering methods.  Alternative techniques exist for this sort of work, including neural network based text mining applications and crowdsourced citizen searching of available public records.    We are currently analyzing our methods and data with a view to improving future corruption research, and will publish our findings.   We are spawning new study groups focused on other targets in the city.   The swamp at City Hall needs to be drained, and no incumbent seems interested in doing that.

Updated 9/27/2013 to add Paul Morris links and the contract amount.

 

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